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Vive la différence – Acknowledging, Accepting and Appreciating that Men and Women are Different

August 18, 2011

Continuing in the theme of marriage that we had earlier this week, there is a very humorous video at the bottom of this page, one I often use for couples I prepare for marriage.

It centers on the fact that a woman is very  different from a man. The physical differences are obvious but these physical differences arise from important differences in the soul. It is the soul that is the form of the body and the qualities of the male and female soul give rise to physical differences. I know that this is politically incorrect today, but it is true. It is a common modern error to be dismissive of the profound differences between the sexes. No one can deny the physical differences, but too often they are dismissed as surface only, of no real significance. But the truth is that our bodies are expressions of the faculties of our soul and male and female differences are far more than skin deep.

It remains true that these differences often give rise to tensions in the marriage and the overall relationships between men and women. That men and women perceive differently, think differently, and have different emotional experiences is just a fact and it is always healthy to recognize and accept reality. Too often in the modern age there has been a tendency to dismiss these deep differences as just archetypes of bygone “sexist” era. But what ends up happening is that an expectation is created that these differences will just go away when we decide to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist. But guess what , they don’t. And thus resentments and anger follow. Too many marriages end in power struggles because neither spouse can accept that it was not good for them to be alone and that God gave them a spouse who, by design, is very different so that they could be challenged and completed.

Original sin has intensified our pain at the experience of these given differences. The Catechism links the tension surrounding these difference to the Fall of Adam and Eve:

[The] union [of husband and wife] has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character. According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust; and the beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work. Nevertheless, the order of creation persists, though seriously disturbed. To heal the wounds of sin, man and woman need the help of the grace that God in his infinite mercy never refuses them. Without his help man and woman cannot achieve the union of their lives for which God created them “in the beginning.” (CCC #s 1606-1608)

One important cure for the disorders of marriage is to return to an appreciation of the necessity of our differences. Though our differences can be be intensified by sin, it is a fact that God made us different for a reason. These differences help spouses to complete each other. A husband should say, “My wife has some things important to teach me. I am incomplete without her.” Likewise the wife should be able to say that her husband has important things to teach her and that he somehow completes her. In this way we move beyond power struggles and what is right and wrong in every case and learn to experience that some tension is good. No tension, no change. God intends many of these differences to change and complete spouses. God calls the very difference humans he has made “suitable” partners.

And humor never hurts. Here is a wonderful and funny comedy routine about the differences between a man’s brain and a woman’s brain. Humor is often the best of medicines to defuse some of the tensions that arise from our differences. Vive la difference!

(By the way, as with any humor, stereotypes are used a bit here. But things are usually funny because they ring true. It is also a fact that not every individual man or woman has every trait described here (for example, I don’t have a very big “nothing box”) but enjoy this video for the humorous descriptions of the general situation).


Comments (19)

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  1. Scotty Ellis says:

    One important question in these matters is to what degree any perceived difference between the sexes are actually essential in any objective way and to what degree they are actually created by society. For a somewhat extreme example, let us consider that women were in general once considered incapable of certain sorts of reason and were mostly excluded from a wide variety of educational opportunities. We see now the way in which a self-sustaining cycle of feedback stemmed from the barring of women from this opportunities, since without them they were typically unable to develop their intellect as much as men (there are, of course, notable exceptions). Yet these cycles continue to exist in other, sometimes subtle ways.

    For a more modern example, linguistic studies have recently noted that women tend to use language focused on relationships more than men, while men tend to use more articles (a, an, the). To what extent is it even possible to assume this to be a result of some underlying difference, rather than an artifact of our society’s focus on male technical prowess, since technical and mechanical language often requires a higher use of articles?

    So, the question seems up in the air. There clearly are differences, at least biologically (although even here there are grey areas and various forms of hermaphroditic genotypes that defy any easy categorization). But given any particular observed difference in emotion, preference, ability, etc., we should be careful in ascribing it to “nature,” since it is very difficult to determine to what degree these are relative cultural artifacts. In the end, I find I often have more in common with many women I have met than with some men I know.

    • You sound thoroughly indoctrinated. As for me, I will celebrate the differences and appreciate that women compliment men. Vive la difference!

      • Scotty Ellis says:

        “You sound thoroughly indoctrinated.”

        Well, I’d appreciate no ad hominem. Actually, if I’ve had any indoctrination, it’s to the opposite effect. I grew up believing exactly what you teach in this article. I received it at school (I went to a very conservative private school), at home, and at Church. I, for one, agree with you that there are differences. What I find concerning is that we do have good historical and sociological evidence that at least some of what is commonly believed to be natural difference is actually cultural. For one thing, our very idea of what those differences consist have thoroughly changed as our knowledge of biology has changed. For example, we no longer believe, as many educated of the ancient and medieval past believed, that woman is “a misbegotten man,” ruled by the emotional or thumotic part of her soul. We no longer believe that women qualify as what Aristotle called “natural slaves.” If we have come to understand that certain widely held views about women were wrong, it does seem to suggest that we should be at least careful in finding good evidence for our claims about the sexes. Nor can we simply swallow Christian tradition whole, some of which has shown itself to be influenced by the flawed ancient views mentioned above. I’m saddened that you didn’t engage my question.

        • Ad hominem refers to personal attacks such as if I were to say “you are so empty” etc. However, my remark is to the issue which is that you “sound” indoctrinated in the modern modern thinking on this. I did not say you “are” indoctrinated. But you do “sound” (i.e. seem) that way.

          While your concerns are not without merit, I must say that your demeanor on this, and many other comments you make tends to be contrarian, a kind of a “yes-but” to the points being made. You are free to do this, I suppose any statement I or others made could be parsed, and distinctions could be made, and concerns raised. But after awhile it begins to occur that you tend to be argumentative. You seem consistently worrisome over what others might “think” about what “we” say. So I propose a light-hearted post celebrating the differences as a good a positive thing we ought to enjoy, post a humorous video, (and I liked the picture too) and you arrive with your comment that is concerned and rather anxious. OK fine, but lighten up a bit too. I do stand by my remark that the modern world largely sets aside the body as of any revelatory character, but there was nothing in my post that is saying all the stuff you’re concerned about such as “natural slavery” “mis-begotton man.” Come on, chill, you know I don’t mean that.

          • Scotty Ellis says:

            “I must say that your demeanor on this, and many other comments you make tends to be contrarian, a kind of a ‘yes-but’ to the points being made.”

            I just like asking questions. Since you’ve brought up the topic of my intentions and motivations, I guess I can be forthright: I’m a convert to Catholicism. I’ve spent the last six years trying to fully understand the faith I have embraced. Lately, I have become especially interested in the intersection of science and faith. When I saw your post on intelligent design, it represented exactly the kind of intersection I’ve been grappling with. What is the relationship between what we can know from reason and experiment and the claims we make from the faith?

            That being said, I’ve been disappointed. Instead of answering my questions or addressing my concerns, which I have voiced in a spirit of genuine inquiry and I believe with great tact and respect, you have questioned my motives, demeanor, and largely ignored and sidestepped my concerns. I will continue to read your blogs, which are in general quite thought provoking (reading your blog posts are what sparked some of my questions in the first place), but I will no longer ask questions or clarifications.

          • Yeah, yeah, well, I’m suspicious, you might say. But I am NOT disappointed. You can keep asking, but so will I.

  2. Nick says:

    We need new noses to appreciate the odor of the sacrament of holy matrimony.

  3. Nguyen Thuong Minh says:

    Epistle 232
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, we need to make clearly phrase “Vive la différence”.
    Thus, topic of the homily is “Vive la différence”.
    Secondly, now permit me to translate the phrase into Vietnamese language hereafter:
    According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary, “Vive la différence” is “long live the difference”.
    According to Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, “long live somebody or something!” is said to show support for the person or thing mentioned.
    According to LACVIET Vietnamese-English Dictionary, “long live” is “muôn năm” in Vietnamese language.
    For instance, long live the President! Long live world peace!
    However, as for me, I think that “long live” is “bravo”.
    For instance, if I support for President, I say “Long live the President!” or “Bravo, President!”
    But if I don’t support for President, I say “Down with the President!”
    Vietnamese biblical translators of United Bible Societies suggested me to join their group, but I say “I have no time”./.

  4. Ann says:

    One of the main differences that our society refuses to acknowledge anymore is how different we are from each other in terms of rearing children. Woman have a powerful, natural draw to take care of their children and to want to be with them, especially when the children are small. Men do too of course, but it manifests in a different, not better, just different way, including a strong urge to provide for them. And this is good.

    But women are taught to just ignore this difference, and think that we are just the same as men, and get back to our jobs and “do it all” as if there is such a thing.

  5. Mary Ann says:

    One of the best ways I’ve heard marriage described is that the man is the head and the woman is the heart. Both are equally important in order to have a functioning body. Personally, I became much more comfortable and at ease in my vocation as wife and mother when I came to understand this.

  6. Achilles says:

    Msgr. Pope, Lovely essay, thank you very much. I agree with your excellent points. More concerning is the interesting comment Scotty made. He certainly does seem indoctrinated and perhaps in an act of rebellion seems to ascribe to the skeptical school. Modern society and modern psychology has strayed so far from the path of wisdom. (I am reminded of Gandolf’s statement to Sauroman of many colors “one who has to break something open to see how it works has left the path of wisdom” something like that anyway,) Modern thinkers, in observing apparent facts and assigning them the role of root causes when they are often effects, have put their own intelligence above obedience to revealed Truth.
    Anyway, thanks for your awesome posts, Achilles.

    • Scotty Ellis says:

      “He certainly does seem indoctrinated and perhaps in an act of rebellion seems to ascribe to the skeptical school.”

      I’d prefer if you didn’t make assumptions about me based off a comment on a blog. A formal skeptic despairs that he can ever find answers to his questions. I believe there are answers; I simply don’t know them yet.

      As for modernity in general, I do agree that the specialization and fragmentation of knowledge represented by modern sciences and academics does represent a departure from an ancient and medieval understanding of wisdom. One of the questions I have always pondered is what good and what ill comes from the change.

    • Kacy says:

      But Scotty’s questions are legitimate. If we are going to celebrate the differences between men and women–something worth celebrating, indeed–then, isn’t it important that we know exactly what it is we are celebrating, aside from the obvious physical differences. In a culture that celebrates androgyny, wouldn’t explaining these things in a serious manner be a way to witness? It seems unfair to just dismiss someone’s questions by saying that they are “indoctrinated.” One could argue that those of us who believe in the inherent differences between the sexes are also “indoctrinated.” Speaking like this doesn’t help advance our position within this culture of death. In fact, to an outsider it would appear that we Catholics just like to plug up our ears and shout, “La, la, la, la, la,” at anyone with a question or different position.

      • Achilles says:

        Hi Kacy, I would say that what is most important is who or what informs us. Modernity urges us to inform ourselves, as Chesterton said, “There was a time when men believed in Truth and questioned themselves, now, men believe in themselves and question Truth.” If we subordinate our wills to the will of God and take the revealed word of Christ as expounded by Mother Church and the Saints and Doctors of the Church in all matters including anthropology, we can rest assured that we are not indoctrinated, we are exercising our Faith. If we submit our wills to the rigors of modern science we will err greatly. Good questions I suppose, but the answers were already given by Christ himself. St. Augustine talked about the two cities, the city of man where we love ourselves to the contempt of God and the city of God where we love GOd to the contempt of our selves. We are called to question and Christ himself said in John we must “judge correctly”.
        I love the different questions and the different positions, but where they differ from the Truth what are we to do? Do you suggest being tolerant of error? I think we must be tolerant of persons, but intolerant of error and open to truth but closed to the false.
        May Christ’s peace be with you and Scotty.

  7. esiul says:

    Msgr. Pope. you did a fine job explaining that there are differences, and the video illustrates it very well.
    It has taken me many years to figure this out. Every time I thought “aha, that’s how his brain works”,
    I found myself more confused. I’m still perplexed, so I just ignore it.
    Thanks.

  8. Sarah M says:

    I appreciate your article, Msgr, and your careful handling of this complex subject. Too often I come across essays of this kind and they end up affirming masculinity over and above femininity in their differences. Thank you for presenting a truly Catholic perspective. It may seem to be a fine point, but I wonder if you wouldn’t consider saying that men and women are different from each other (which you do in the body of the essay) rather than “a woman is very different from a man.” To hold up man as a norm that woman deviates from is an error of modern psychology and even medicine. It is a subtle but stinging thing and I point it out with a bit of fear and trembling because of how much I admire your work!

  9. Donna says:

    My problem is that every time I hear a list of ‘men are like this, women are like that’, I pretty much always hear my own traits put in the male category. So where does a woman with mental boxes fit ?
    And BTW, if you think it’s hard for a man to use his ‘nothing box’, try being a woman with a ‘nothing box’ ! You’ll get pounded by both men and other women.